The Engineer's Notebook Blog

The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

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Does Privacy Exist in the Workplace?

Posted June 26, 2008 12:00 AM by Sharkles

The technologies of today have blurred the line between public and private. For many of us, a review of our emails, Web searches, and text-message inboxes could be used to paint a virtual portrait of our lives. Unfortunately, what many forget is that these logs are not gone when we delete them, nor are we the only people who can see them – depending on who's footing the bill.

I'm very lucky in my job because I get to surf the Internet looking for controversies. I know that not everyone has this luxury. While I'm at work, using a company-provided computer and Internet connection, I know that what I'm doing could be monitored. A lot of people (myself included) have never questioned this idea – until now.

Quon v. Arch Wireless
This week, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled in favor of Jeff Quon, a police officer whose department decided to review the text messages sent from his department-supplied pager. Quon sued the police department, the city, and service provider Arch Wireless for violating his privacy. Quon's lawyer argued that although the police department had supplied the phone, Arch Wireless was an external entity – meaning that without a warrant or employee permission, the department was not entitled to read Quon's messages.

The court ruled unanimously in Quon's favor, explaining that a "reasonable expectation of privacy" is understood when dealing with an outside provider. By seizing the text-message records without a warrant or Quon's consent, the police department and Arch Wireless were said to have violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

But is American case law now clear?

"The extent to which the Fourth Amendment provides protection for the contents of electronic communications in the Internet Age is an open question", admitted Judge Kim Wardlaw. Nevertheless, the Electronic Frontier Foundation claimed that the Quon ruling helps to ensure that the Fourth Amendment "applies to your communications online just as strongly as it does to packages and letters."

But does it?

Privacy at Work
So does privacy exist at work? It depends on the situation. If you're using messaging programs on an internal server, then your employer can investigate what you're sending or searching without your consent. But if doing "business" on a handheld or PDA device through a service provider (e.g., Verizon, AT&T, Arch Wireless.), your information is - at least according to the federal appeal court in San Francisco - protected under the Fourth Amendment and the Stored Communications Act

Court cases like the Quon v. Arch Wireless are instructive because they help clarify what is public and what is private. As I mentioned earlier, when I'm at work, I understand that I'm using my employer's computer and Internet connection. So, I save whatever might be considered "inappropriate" for when I'm home.

How about you?



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